US-N Korea relations: Mutual suspicion still exists



The US and North Korea have made a good start but uncertainty still persists. Singapore summit is, in fact, the beginning of a great gamble for both sides. Now it turns out in real terms, North Korea continues to be under economic sanctions and the US continues to be suspicious of Pyongyang’s commitment to complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearisation. Washington will lift sanctions only ‘when nukes are no longer an issue’. Both leaders can pat themselves on the back, though, because the US has got Kim to sign off on denuclearisation in a manner that, although ill-defined, suits it, while Kim has been able to get the US-South Korean military exercises called off.


The US has given up on CVID as China has been vocal about step by step approach rather than high speed programs which might collapse.

Senior US officials who discussed with Japanese and Korean officials recently have narrated that the US will wait for solid proof of dismantling of nuclear and WMD programs of North Korea. 

 It appears the US will continue to be apprehensive until it is verified that North Korea is no longer capable of launching a nuclear strike against the US mainland.

The US may have halted its military
exercises with South Korea, but what effect the summit agreement may have, if
any, for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile
defence system, which has also been a concern of China and Russia, is yet to be

Already, China is concerned about THAAD and
the continuation of sanctions, which leave ambiguity in its trading
relationship with North Korea. Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington are now involved
in what may be termed “backward diplomacy”, a reversed diplomatic process in
which high-level summits represent the beginnings of a negotiation rather than
its concluding stage.

Beijing is undoubtedly involved in these
processes. China’s longstanding alliance with North Korea has thus far allowed
Xi Jinping to act in the shadows, limiting his exposure to this unconventional

Given the lack of fixed assurances, each
actor is approaching the summit and the wider diplomatic process on the Korean
Peninsula with different expectations.

This increases the risk of
misunderstandings, making it hard to predict an outcome. Since China is getting
apprehensive about future US policy towards N Korea, in case it fails by end of
the year then Beijing will not be blamed for any outcome.

Having signed the document and with the
economic sanctions against it remaining in place, North Korea will be wondering
if giving away its only strategic leverage was too big a gamble. 

From the perspective of various
developments, it looks too good to be true. It remains to be seen, however, if
China will actually allow Kim to be stripped of all nukes. Trump’s tendency to
upend traditional diplomatic praxes, his narcissism and entrepreneurial or
transactional approach to foreign policy, has helped North Korea’s strategy.

Kim’s proposal for a bilateral meeting was
made knowing that such an invite would entice the American president, inflating
his ego while playing on his personality traits.

Moon Jae-in is patiently trying to bring
the US and North Korea along, converging towards his mid-term strategy of
securing a significant breakthrough on the Peninsula while working to ensure
strategic dividends for all actors throughout the process.

Ultimately, South Korea is willing to
redefine the security paradigm on the Korean Peninsula as an exclusive
bilateral matter between Seoul and Pyongyang. This is happening for the reason
that the US under Trump is becoming much more calculative and may become
careless in case North Korea turns hostile. Thus, more efforts are needed to
reach a meaningful conclusion.

Such an effort  will entail challenges for both North and
South Korea, as each of their respective allies and security providers, the People’s
Republic of China and the United States, need to willingly suspend their
involvement on security matters on the Peninsula.

Both are permanent members at the United
Nation Security Council and this fragile shift will be possible only if Xi
Jinping and Donald Trump will allow Moon Jae-in to harness the North into
deeper forms of engagement encompassing social and cultural exchanges as well
as economic cooperation, military and political dialogue.

But China is not very comfortable with US
plans to start the first phase of the process before July 4. In fact, China is
suggesting a fresh MoU to be signed after the summit and the work can start by
end of July. This will help Beijing to delete all its footprints in the
development of nuclear and missile program of N Korea overnight.

China is unwilling to do it now even after
the successful summit shows Beijing is unsure of US attitude as Trump is a
puppet in the hands of arms lobbies and lunatic in some cases. At the same
time, the US is deeply suspicious of China. Just few weeks ago, that meeting in
Dalian was seen as an effort by China to ensure that Beijing's voice was heard
when Kim will meet with Trump. In the on-again, off-again run-up to the summit,
Trump at one point blamed Kim's trip to China for creating an unwelcome
''change in attitude'' by the North Korean leader. China moved quickly to urge
both sides not to cancel the meeting. This means Beijing is now doing lobbying
for sanctions on Pyongyang to be eased.

In fact, the US strategy is to give a considerable
rope to North Korea first and then tighten it to its neck later. What is more
serious is Trump's announcement to suspend joint US-South Korea military
exercises. The suspension is apparently aimed at appeasing the North, which
sees such drills as a grave threat to its security. Trump might argue it is
necessary to halt the drills as part of his promise to provide security
guarantees for the Kim regime. But he needs to realize his abrupt announcement
caught South Korea off guard.